Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Slay Writer’s Block With This Simple Technique

“I’m stuck. I have absolutely nothing to write about.”

If you ever find yourself saying this, take a beat, take a breather… and get over it. I know we just met, but sometimes a little tough love is helpful. Honestly, I get it. It’s easy to fall into a rut.  But just like a child who did ‘nothing’ all day despite coming home from camp with an armful of art projects, your ‘nothing’ is not nothing at all. (Pardon the double negative.)

Think about it- the vast majority of books coming out right now were born in the midst of an isolating global pandemic, yet their topics run the gamut. Many of these authors’ inspiration sources were limited to their imaginations, whatever media they consumed, and their lived experiences leading up to (and including) time spent largely confined to their homes. 

Limited? Those possibilities are limitless! But uncovering them can feel daunting. Fortunately there is one easy technique I recommend using to start sifting through the possibilities - ask questions! 

Why?, How?, and What If? can bring about some fantastic inspiration for nonfiction and fiction texts, alike.

The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States:  Agostini, Alliah L., Cloud, Sawyer: 9780760381991: Amazon.com: Books

In early to mid-2021 I wrote two books that were rooted in my own experiences and those of someone close to me: The Juneteenth Story, a nonfiction picture book about the origins of Juneteenth celebrations; and Big Tune, a fiction picture book about a talented, tenacious, but shy boy in an outgoing party-hosting family.

When I was approached with the opportunity to write The Juneteenth Story it was kismet; I grew up going to Juneteenth Festivals, but never thought twice about it being unique. In my hometown (Buffalo, NY) it was a summer tradition! But in the midst of a global pandemic, awareness about Juneteenth exploded beyond the communities who had long celebrated it, and it finally became a national holiday. 

Though I knew why Juneteenth was celebrated, there was still plenty I wondered about how the celebration came to be. Just from asking How?, questions emerged like:

  • How was the first Juneteenth celebrated?
  • How were subsequent Juneteenths celebrated?
  • How did it evolve along the course of history?
  • How did it spread from Texas to the rest of the country?
  • How did it become a national holiday?

Digging through articles, books, and essays helped me answer those questions, and those findings ultimately turned into the basis for the book.

Big Tune, however, started with a ‘What If?” 

Big Tune

I was working on a story centered around dance and hit a dead end when I started tossing some ideas around with a critique partner. She asked “What if one of the characters was too shy to dance?” 

This triggered memories of my (somewhat shy, pseudo-“Dancehall King”) husband speaking fondly about his childhood recollections of family parties in Brooklyn, and his favorite post-party chore: collecting cans for coin return. 

So, I kept asking What if

  • What if one of those parties was canceled for some reason? 
  • What if a kid hero could save the day?
  • What if I made up a story about this… in rhyme (a feat, I’ve learned, is lots of fun, sounds great when it’s finished, but is certainly not for the faint of heart!)

The simplest questions can lead to fun, unexpected answers that can turn into ideas. These could be ideas to research and unearth some unexpected, fascinating facts or subjects for your next creative non-fiction project. Or they could simply get the idea engine turning and help you plot out an unexpected fictional adventure.

Let’s take another example. 

Q: What are the first steps of your morning routine?
A: I get out of bed, take a shower, and brush my teeth.

Non-fiction approach:

But do you wonder…
  • Who invented the toothbrush?
  • When we started using toothbrushes?
  • What they were made out of?
  • How did we start using toothpaste?
  • What was it like to go to the dentist… 100 years ago? Longer? (Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question…)

Continue digging! Maybe there’s more research potential.

Fiction approach:

But what if….
  • Your toothbrush was replaced… with a magic wand
  • You were 6 years old
  • You lived in a castle
  • Your best friend was a puppy named Marvin
  • You discovered you were actually a wizard 
  • Marvin was captured by your wizard nemesis
  • It is up to you to get Marvin back

Sounds like we have the start of some kind of story!

All that from a morning routine?


You never know where your questions will take you! If you don’t like the first ideas, that’s fine- keep going. Bit by bit each question will add cracks to that pesky writer's block until it’s obliterated entirely.

May you give birth to something beautiful! (...that you will probably relentlessly revise over… and over… and over again. But that’s a topic for another blog.) 

Happy Writing!



Alliah L. Agostini is a proud Buffalo, NY native and the author of The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States (becker&mayer! kids), Big Tune: Rise of the Dancehall Prince (FSG, March ‘23), and A Little Golden Book Biography about Oprah Winfrey (Golden Books, December ‘23). She lives in NJ with her family, and is a member of the Picture Book Sunrays, Kidlit in Color, Black Creators HQ, and SCBWI.

Learn more about Alliah on her website, alliahagostini.com, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter via @alliago.

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